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Wanted

Poäng: The Little-Known History Of Ikea's Most Famous Chair

Here's what made the Scandinavian design emporium's chair an instant classic 40 years ago.

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With its bentwood frame, cantilevered seat, and curved backrest, the Poäng chair is one of Ikea's most recognizable pieces. The Swedish furniture maker has produced over 30 million Poäng chairs since it debuted in 1976, and it continues to sell about 1.5 million every year—the company's bestselling armchair—not bad for a design that's settling squarely into middle age.

So what, exactly, made the Poäng a commercial success and an instant icon for Ikea? The secret lies in a genius concept that's been gently updated with the times. The company doesn't normally put individual designers in the spotlight, but for the Poäng's 40th birthday, it did.

Japanese designer Noboru Nakamura is the creator of the Poäng. He came to Ikea in 1973 to learn more about Scandinavian furniture—and there, he collaborated with Lars Engman, the director of design at the company, on a chair that would use plywood veneer construction. In a video interview, Nakamura, who left Ikea in 1978 to start his own furniture company, describes how the chair came about.

"I learned by experience that a cantilever consisting of a U-shaped structure could, with a person, swing to some extent with the use of molded plywood, and I wanted it to swing in an elegant way, which triggered me to imagine Poäng," he says. "A chair shouldn't be a tool that binds and holds the sitter; it should be a tool that provides us emotional richness. [Poäng] creates an image where we let off stress or frustration by swinging. Such movement has meaning and value."

The final silhouette resembled Alvar Aalto's Model 406 chair of 1939, but in lieu of a webbed or caned seat, the Poäng sported thin upholstery.

"While the design has remained largely unchanged since its inception, this iconic product has undergone some alterations to make it more accessible, more affordable, more relevant, and to increase the quality," says Mark Bond, deputy range manager of living rooms at Ikea.

There have been tweaks to the upholstery color and pattern to keep the chair relevant with consumer tastes, but the biggest change happened in 1992. The chair's seat was originally made from tubular steel, but in the early '90s, the company switched to an all-wood frame and also narrowed the size. This allowed the chair to be flat packed—a move that reduced the price by 21% for customers (it's actually less expensive now than it was when it launched). That same year, Ikea changed the chair's original name, Poem, to Poäng.

"The evolution has always been design-focused, thinking of this product not as a fashion item but rather adhering to and improving upon the classic design," Bond says.

Considering that the Poäng routinely shows up in houses, apartments, dorm rooms, and anywhere you need to kick up your feet, Nakamura's emphasis on an emotionally rich chair—and Ikea's affordability-minded engineering—have proven to be a winning combination. To honor the design, the company is selling a limited-edition version of the chair, with a grasscloth-like cushion cover much like the inaugural offering had in 1976, starting in September.

Like the recently opened Ikea museum, that fanfare around the Poäng's design shows how the furniture company is beginning to demystify some of the genius that's contributed to its history—a welcome change that gives some of the most ubiquitous products in the world the same pedigree as pieces that cost many hundreds of dollars more.

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